In 2019, director Kazuhiro Furuhashi and series composition writer Yasuko Kobayashi adapted Osamu Tezuka’s classic manga Dororo to television. They not only lengthened the story, but brought it to completion more than the rushed ending of the original manga. It still follows Hyakkimaru, a young man seeking to reclaim his stolen body parts from demons, and Dororo, a rambunctious thief who looks up to him. Rather than potential for disability in the premise, Dororo (2019) focuses on issues of autonomy and justice by framing Hyakkimaru’s quest as morally driven. He retaliates against a corrupt leader willing to steal the livelihood of another and aims to take back what is rightfully his, which distracts from the potential ableism of aiming to be “cured.” Still, incorporating the rights of disabled people into its themes of autonomy and anatomy is a missed opportunity.
Instead, Dororo (2019) looks at how Hyakkimaru’s body parts were supposedly sacrificed for the greater good. The central ethical issue is the same as in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a science fiction short story by Ursula K. LeGuin first published in 1973. In “Omelas,” LeGuin posits a utopian society that operates on the torture of a single child, which metaphysically allows the land to prosper. Omelas was inspired by William James’ argument in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” that humans possess innate morality because they feel repulsion at such hypothetical society. LeGuin writes that while the citizens of Omelas are sickened by the treatment of the child, most accept the bargain and go on with their lives.
The rest of this post contains spoilers for Dororo.
Omelas is a dystopia, where the child represents any and all oppressed people in society. The wealthy are only rich because the poor remain in squander, for example. LeGuin details the splendor of Omelas, trying to convince the reader of its existence, and she admits it may be more believable once she reveals it is built on invisible suffering. Hierarchy and oppression make more sense than a utopia.
Dororo, the 2019 anime adaptation specifically, tackles the same philosophical question as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas:” what if the good of all society came at the price of a single person’s well-being? Kagemitsu Daigo, a lord during the Warring States Period of Japanese history, makes that exact deal when he offers his firstborn to a hall of demon statues in exchange for power. The demons intend to kill the baby, but divine intervention from the Goddess of Mercy instead allows him to stay alive as they strip away his various body parts–legs, arms, eyes, etc. Daigo orders the child to be drowned, but his nursemaid allows him to escape down the river out of pity. As far as Daigo knows, his plan succeeds and no one knows the secret of his success.
Osamu Tezuka’s original Dororo manga has more room to explore its premise than a short story like “Omelas,” and the 2019 series fleshes out the circumstances even more. Hyakkimaru and Dororo’s exploration of rival lands reveal how Daigo’s exchange impacted society: his land prospers while others are barren, he yields harvest while others starve, his people are safe while others fend off wild beasts. Possession of Hyakkimaru’s body parts physically alter Daigo’s territory, which allows him to shelter his citizens and feed his armies. Hyakkimaru, Dororo‘s equivalent to the tortured child in “Omelas,” is not only named but the very protagonist of a narrative. He receives prosthetics from his adoptive father, but wants to reclaim his original body parts. It’s not that he feels incomplete, but simply believes he deserves to possess what belongs to him.
Tahomaru, Daigo’s unloved second son desperate to prove himself, is also written with a moral perspective: keeping Hyakkimaru separated from his body parts in order to protect their society. In terms of Omelas, Tahomaru realizes the secret to paradise when he learns of his lost brother’s existence. At first he wavers over the morality of killing his innocent brother, but Daigo soon manipulates him into believing the sacrifice is for the greater good. As Tahomaru was born after Hyakkimaru, he has only ever known Daigo’s domain to be plentiful, but now understands why. Unlike his cruel and ambitious father, Tahomaru truly cares for people: his mother Nuinokata, and his bodyguards Mutsu and Hyogo. As LeGuin puts it:
It is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives.Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free.
Tahomaru not only accepts to protect his people, but violently defends it. He takes responsibility for the system his father created, and resolves to murder his brother.
For every demon Hyakkimaru defeats, a body part of his regrows and Daigo’s land in turn falls to ruin–war, disease, natural disaster. Many are killed along Hyakkimaru and Dororo’s journey, whether by Hyakkimaru’s blade, the samurai, or the demons. Hyakkimaru makes the choice to take back what’s his at that cost, with support only from Dororo. Even Jikai, his adoptive father, worries that Hyakkimaru gaining autonomy will turn him toward destruction. As much as Nuinokata cares for Hyakkimaru and regrets letting go of him, she feels powerless to help or stop him. She realizes Daigo’s bargain was fragile, because it was not the result of his own efforts, and thus cannot last. Indeed, Hyakkimaru regains all his body parts and Daigo is left with his mistakes.
Dororo not only looks at different perspectives within dystopia, but how its structure could be toppled. In “Omelas,” some reject their city upon witnessing the truth:
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.
They may opt out of benefiting, but Omelas persists and the child will continue to suffer. In Dororo, the child himself breaks free and disrupts the “balance.” Not only were his body parts stolen, he was isolated from society. Only once Hyakkimaru no longer bears the burden of providing for the land can he belong and be treated like a person. Through the aid of others beneath the ruling samurai class–Jikai the repentant executioner, Dororo the war orphan, Mio the survival sex worker, etc.–he is able to reach and confront his father. Rather than killing in revenge, Hyakkimaru walks away and forces Daigo to solve problems by himself. Dororo decides to follow Hyakkimaru’s example and enact change on his own using inherited gold, rather than rely on the samurai. Hyakkimaru’s destination is left unsaid, except for a vision of reuniting with a fully grown Dororo in a flourishing rice field like those Mio dreamed of. Freeing Hyakkimaru may have reverted Daigo’s land, but inspiring Dororo may very well restore it.
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